Children of Men (2006) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Children of Men is possibly the most ballyhooed look at the future since Blade Runner. It was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who has quickly assembled a solid reputation and a very impressive resume with żY Tu Mama Tambien? and a Harry Potter film. The basic idea was adapted from an incisive dystopian novel called "The Children of Men," from P.D. James, the noted mystery writer.
Frankly, I don't like what they did to form a script from Lady James's novel. She writes detective stories for the most part, which means she has a natural inclination to make her plots sensible and logical, and to give some real thought to the consequences of her own assumptions and the actions of her characters. The book is about a future in which the human race has become infertile, so Lady James tried to think through what would really happen to our race in such a case. Some examples:
I could continue, but you get the point. It is a thought-provoking concept, if a somewhat academic one. If you're interested, you can read Wikipedia's excellent summary.
In the novel's vision, England is basically the last bastion of civilization, owing in large measure to its island status. In order to maintain order, and to defend its borders against all the refugees who would like to move there, the government basically transmogrifies into a fascist regime ... and ...
Well, you get the picture.
It has a great ending. In the new world order, the remaining men and women who might possible re-populate the planet are constantly being poked and prodded and studied by the fascist government and its scientists. The weak, the infirm, the undesirable, and those with major handicaps are basically ignored. Then a miracle baby is finally conceived, and the father turns out to be ...
Well, you'll just have to read it, dammit.
Man, that would have made a great movie.
Children of Men is not that movie. It basically bears no resemblance to that hypothetical film except in the general premise (mankind is collectively infertile) and in the names of a few of the characters. One must remember that future fiction is not about the future, but the present. The present of 2006 is very different from the present of 1992, when the novel was written. While the book tried to think through the premise coldly and objectively, the filmed version of Children of Men is basically a hysterical, shrieking allegory to current events. Instead of the populace trying to cope with boredom in a quietly despairing world, the urban streets have degenerated into war zones filled with caged immigrants awaiting transportation to refugee camps. The British government is basically a fictionalized version of the Bush administration, trying to fortify the country's borders, criminalizing immigration, and clamping down on civil rights in general. When the illegal immigrants are placed in refugee camps, they are stripped of all their dignity, ala Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. In reaction to this, various groups of fugitives and sympathizers are continually engaged in armed insurrection against the government.
You know, pretty much the opposite of what would really happen if there were no young men in the world.
Oh, well, I suppose a cerebral, academic approach to the premise wouldn't have done anything at the box office. It would have ended up in the arthouses like the similarly-themed Canadian film Last Night. In order to fill the seats, the film needed to add passion, visceral impact and, of course, plenty of explosions. That it did.
The last thirty minutes or so of this film basically consist of Clive Owen being nearly shot in combat, nearly shot face-to-face, nearly killed in explosions, nearly hit by shrapnel, nearly crushed by rubble, and so forth. That sounds trite, and I suppose it is in a sense, but it's also downright harrowing. The film creates a wartime environment as realistic as the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan or Enemy at the Gates. The scene was shot in a single take with a hand-held camera to create Owen's own P.O.V. It's so effective that if you're lost in the movie's world you may well find yourself flinching and ducking, and getting as involved in the action as you would be if you were playing a particularly absorbing video game and controlling Owen yourself.
Owen plays the world-weary guy who pretends not to give a crap about anything, but deep inside is a man of absolute integrity who harbors great idealism, and merely uses cynicism to cover up the pain of disillusion.
You know, the usual bullshit.
It's the familiar "neo-Bogart with a British accent" routine that has become Owen's stock in trade. Of course one must concede that he does this character well. He ought to. He's had plenty of practice. The thing I like about Owen's take on the character in Children of Men is that he's basically not a bad-ass in any way. He differs from Bogart in that you always knew if you got into a fair fight with a Bogie anti-hero, he'd calmly kick your ass without breaking a sweat. Owen's character, on the other hand, would calmly get his ass kicked. As he proceeds through the war zone at the end, you can tell that he's scared witless. He's flinching. He's retreating. He's closing his eyes. His hands are shaking, He doesn't shriek like a girly man, and he probably doesn't pee his pants, but you can believe that he might, and he does react the way any unarmed non-combatant would really do if trapped in an urban military battle where both sides are heavily armed and assume him to be an enemy. Why doesn't he run away? He manages to get the job done, not out of any superhuman effort, but simply by continuing to move forward because he doesn't really have any other good alternative.
The central story of the film was not in the book at all. Owen plays a bureaucrat who has abandoned his ideals, at least superficially, until he is contacted by his ex-lover (Julianne Moore) to do the most important thing any man will ever be asked to do in this dystopic future world. He has to figure out a way to get the one and only pregnant woman in the world - from a pregnancy which came out of nowhere after 18 years of human infertility - into the hands of some apolitical scientists and medical professionals who wander the seas on a ship which has been converted to a floating laboratory. This is mankind's last hope, and Owen must do this before the pregnant woman is killed in street combat or captured by one of the warring factions and used for their political purposes.
The filmmaking techniques and the details coordinated in that process are absolutely magnificent, as good as any film you have ever seen. There is one car chase shot with a single camera take which involved innumerable actors, explosions, other vehicles, fires, gunshots, and stunts, all performed in real time. The camera crew was placed on the roof of a specially modified car and the camera itself was rigged especially for this purpose. In the final battle scene which I mentioned above, also shot in one take, Cuaron not only managed to rival Spielberg and Annaud for the most harrowing battlefield scenes ever filmed, but he even managed to top Tarkovsky's "Tatar invasion" scene in Andrei Rublev for the title of "most complicated continuous one-camera take in a major movie." He co-ordinated hundreds of actors, tanks, high-powered rifle shots, massive explosions, and other elements of urban warfare as the hand-held camera follows Clive Owen through a couple hundred of yards of city streets, up a flight of stairs, through a building under heavy assault, and down the stairs again. And all while the actors continue to deliver dialogue. Brilliant stuff! Truly brilliant. Based solely on the sheer virtuosity of the photography, you have to see this movie if you love film, or even if you are interested in filmmaking. I would be surprised (and shocked) if three-time Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezki is not nominated yet again for Best Cinematography.
I ended up liking this film very much, but if you want to follow me on that path you will have to give the script a lot of latitude. While Lady James tried to think through every detail of what her imaginary world would be like, the authors of this film have not sacrificed the pacing to make all the details add up. Nor should they have. Too much explanation would have diluted the film's power. In other words, while this is not the film that one might have expected from the book, it is also a very, very good one. (It's in the IMDb Top 250.) Go see it, because it cost $76 million to make, and it is not going to be a blockbuster, so it needs need all the help it can get to give the investors a healthy return. Filmmakers should be encouraged to make more films of this caliber. I paid to see it twice, and I took my kids the second time.
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